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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Trouble With “Islamophobia”

The title of this article places the word "Islamophobia" in quotation marks for the very good reason that I propose to talk about the trouble with the word itself. First, this is not an innocent word. It has a specific, very recent origin and history, particularly a history of deliberate politicking for its acceptance. It is all too easy to use this new word, "Islamphobia" - and with it the very idea of Islamophobia - as a stick to beat people who are attempting to engage in genuine dialogue about the nature of Islam, particularly its more radical and/or political forms.
This is not to deny that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a quasi-racist character, motivated by parochialism and xenophobia, and sometimes a racist dislike of Arabs in particular. "Islamophobia" is a suspect word, but there is clearly such a thing as anti-Muslim bigotry.
The bigots and the critics
It is not coincidental that so much of the public criticism of Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right. These organisations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism – combined with what they portray as a defence of Christian traditions and values, and an endangered “Christian identity.” They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a fear of change.
An obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share these values is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush. Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam can gain a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. E.g., extreme-right figures have attacked such practices as forced marriages, honour-killings, female genital mutilation, and highly conservative apparel for women such as the burqa and the chador. All of these are legitimate targets for criticism.

At the same time, many Muslims in Western countries continue to suffer from suspicion, cultural and personal misunderstanding, discrimination, and outright intolerance that sometimes rises to the level of harassment and violence. It’s legitimate to oppose this bigotry while also fearing Islamist groups that seek to impose some version of Islam by force.

The situation creates a complex set of advantages, disadvantages, and risks. The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As this goes on, however, there is also a risk that the word “Islamophobia” will be used to demonize and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islamism, or even to Islam itself, is based on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. Religious doctrines influence the social and political attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favourable or otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert immense power or influence. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring and criticism.

Indeed, there are reasons why right-wing organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism and secularism. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to unpleasant opportunists. Regardless of who uses these arguments, they plausibly apply to certain elements of Islam, or at least to attitudes and practices associated with it. In any event, it is an inescapable fact that political Islam is a threat to global peace and to liberal ideals.
Whether or not they are put in good faith on a particular occasion, nothing precludes the arguments being put sincerely, and perhaps cogently, by individuals with legitimate concerns.
Thus, there are genuine reasons for some people who are not racists, cultural supremacists, or anything of the sort, to criticize Islam, or certain forms and manifestations of Islam, or to express hostility towards it. These relate to disapproval of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, to the power wielded by Islamic leaders and organisational structures, and increasingly to the ambitions and actions of Islamists such as ISIS.
Take-home lessons
A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. One is that opponents of Islam, or some of its forms and manifestations, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when accused of racism or the quasi-racism of “Islamophobia.” When these accusations are misdirected, they are likely to inflame passions even further, though they may intimidate some individuals into silence.
This suggests that we understand that racism and bigotry do not underlie all hostility to Islam. Beyond a certain point, there is too much disadvantage in walking on eggshells. We don't have to do it all our lives.
Key Words: Russell Blackford, ISIS, Islam, “Islamophobia”, honour-killings, female genital mutilation.
Note: This short article was first published by what was then the Secular Global Institute in September 2014.

Why "The Hellfire Club"?

This piece was originally posted on the Skeptic Ink blog network during the period when I moved the blog there, and it was, indeed, just "The Hellfire Club". It has since reverted to its original name "Metamagician and the Hellfire Club"...


Now and then, I am asked why I named this blog “The Hellfire Club” (it was originally “Metamagician and the Hellfire Club”, but that’s another story).

The primary reference, of course, is to the libertine clubs of the 18th century that used this name. Members of those organisations thumbed their noses at the sexual and other mores of the time, and one of the hints in the title of the blog was that this would, ideally, be a blog for a fairly tight-knit group of people who would not have much regard for conventional moral ideas, sacred cows, unexamined social assumptions, and the like.

The blog attracted some (modest) popularity, and has gained an audience that is critical, thoughtful, and (quite rightly) happy to disagree with my views. So it is certainly not the tight-knit bunch of my friends that I expected way back in 2006. Still, I think the part about not just accepting social convention at face value still applies. This is a place where many conventional notions of virtue and moral goodness are considered … questionable. And not just conventional ones, favoured by the social majority. All forms of dogma, authoritarianism, moralism, and moral panics and posturing are treated with skepticism here.

As I’ve said before (on the old site), it has never been solely, primarily, or dedicatedly an atheist blog, so the title was not especially about the idea that we are unbelievers on our way to Hell (in the view of theologically orthodox Christians). However, I welcome that implication: my co-editorship of 50 Voices of Disbelief (followed by my co-authorship of the forthcoming 50 Great Myths About Atheism) got me more involved in the organised atheist movement, and it certainly makes the scornful joke more relevant.

Of course, there’s also the association with the villainous Hellfire Club of the X-MEN mythos, itself an embroidered version of the original libertine clubs. Those Hellfire Club members – particularly Emma Frost – are almost the blog’s mascots.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Unwarranted disciplinary action against Q&A producer

This story reveals that a disciplinary warning, for employee misconduct, has been issued against Q&A executive producer Peter McEvoy over the recent appearance of terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah on the show. Mallah was allowed to ask a prepared question from the audience - and to enter into a brief exchange with a panellist.

I am no fan of an Islamist hothead, if that's how he's best described, such as Mallah. His only credentials for appearing on the show seem to relate to his past brush with the law, and giving him such an opportunity to air his views to a mass audience could be considered a poor decision: in effect, it rewards his bad conduct.

It turns out, furthermore, that Mallah has made at least one vile, sexist comment on Twitter, aimed at two female journalists.

All that said, many people get public exposure from bad behaviour that makes them notorious, and at least Mallah was invited on the show to discuss an issue to which his views and his troubled past had some relevance. As for the sexist tweet: first, many people, perhaps including many politicians, would be considered "inappropriate" to appear on television if all it took was one obnoxious public comment (whether made on Twitter or elsewhere); second, people should not normally be considered so tainted as to be beyond the pale, and refused platforms, merely for something said (if what he said was defamatory, as it may well have been, there are remedies available in the civil courts); and third, a broadcaster cannot, and should not, trawl through the Twitter feeds of all potential guests to ensure that platforms are given only to people who are squeaky clean. All things considered, I'm not convinced that this really was such a bad call by McEvoy.

I am especially concerned that this action against McEvoy has happened so soon after the dismissal of Scott McIntyre by the SBS.

If an employee repeatedly makes poor, embarrassing judgments, it can add up to unsatisfactory performance; and that may, indeed, eventually be grounds for dismissal. But even if I could agree that Peter McEvoy displayed poor judgment with Q&A's invitation to Mallah, an act of poor judgment is not the same as an act of misconduct such as to merit disciplinary action. It sometimes appears that disciplinary actions by employers, including outright dismissals and menacing demands for resignations, are being taken at the drop of a hat.

In the case of this action taken against Peter McEvoy, the ABC has itself shown atrocious judgment, and it has created an impression of bowing to pressure from the executive government. The government itself appears far too willing to use its power to go after specific individuals who displease it.

I expect to say more about this sorry chain of events, and meanwhile I look forward to what comes of the review of Q&A now being conducted by Shaun Brown and Ray Martin. When it appears, I'll scrutinise their report with interest.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Follow up article on Singer

I have a follow-up article on Peter Singer on the Cogito blog: "I Stand With Peter Singer". This deals with a misguided campaign for Singer's resignation or dismissal from Princeton University. More generally, it deals with illiberal attempts to punish and deter unwanted speech on issues of public importance, as opposed to meeting it with criticism.